In the 1980s, when the generation yet-to-be-tagged-as-X were still known as "baby busters," a series of John Hughes movies depicted what it meant to be a teenager in America. Sixteen Candles. The Breakfast Club. Pretty in Pink. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Some Kind of Wonderful. Long before Napoleon Dynamite, Juno or High School Musical, Hughes's films captured the particulars of teen angst and relationships.
Hughes died last week of a heart attack at the age of 59. His funeral was held yesterday in the Chicago suburbs where so many of his movies were filmed. Ben Stein, a longtime friend and one of the Ferris Bueller stars, said Hughes "was the Wordsworth of the suburban America post-war generation."
Hughes's movies are more than a time capsule of '80s music, fashion and hair. They were formational for the worldview of many Gen Xers and shaped how we view friendship and community. By extension, they offer a glimpse into what Christian Gen Xers yearn for in the church.
Another movie of the late '80s, Dead Poets Society, exhorted viewers to carpe diem, seize the day. But what would we actually do if we were to seize that day? Ferris Bueller's answer was to take the day off with his best friend and girlfriend and hit the city. The average suburban teen moviegoer could relate more to catching a Cubs game than reciting candlelit poetry and that barbaric yawp stuff.
But the overarching theme of Ferris Bueller's Day Off is not merely "follow your heart" or "skip school." It's friendship. While Ferris is the focus of the movie, viewers do not generally identify with him. He's too singular, too unconventional. His best friend, Cameron, is the Everyman character. We all know what it's like to want to stay in bed and hide from the world. And every Cameron out there needs a friend like Ferris—someone who does unimaginable things to challenge us in ways we would never expect.
Similarly, the female protagonist is not really Ferris's girlfriend, Sloane, who is little more than eye candy. The most important female character is Ferris's sister, Jeanie, struggling with sibling rivalry and family dynamics while searching for her own identity. She too is on a journey from alienation to significance, and she finds some degree of connection to others even as she becomes more comfortable with who she is.
Yearning for community
Likewise, The Breakfast Club is about an alienated generation's yearning for friendship and community. The movie featured one of the first true ensemble casts, presaging TV shows like Friends or Lost where no one character is the lead. All of the Breakfast Club members are equally necessary for the dynamic of the movie to work. It was not just a Molly Ringwald vehicle with a supporting cast. And all of us watching longed for a community of peers where we could have equal billing and our share of the stage, not just be a sidekick to someone else's lead.
The Breakfast Club identified teen archetypes but then transcended them. On one level, the takeaway message is the familiar refrain that "we're more alike than different," looking beyond the stereotypes to show that these five seemingly diverse teenagers have more in common than not. But on another level, the movie worked to hold individuality and community in dialectical tension. Each of the five protagonists remained their own distinctive character, even as they grappled with their particular problems in the context of a larger community.
A. O. Scott of the New York Times, in his appreciative remembrance of Hughes's movies, noted that "the great, paradoxical insight of The Breakfast Club is that alienation is the norm, that nerds, jocks, stoners, popular girls and weirdos are all, in their own ways, outsiders." As a high schooler, it was a shock to my system to realize that the popular kids had their own insecurities just like the freaks and geeks did.
A movie like The Breakfast Club is intended to be viewed with friends and then discussed afterward in community, as my high school friends did on many occasions in those late '80s. We asked ourselves, "So which one do you identify with?" And we'd surprise ourselves when we found that the athlete related more with the stoner or nerd than the archetypal jock.
My sophomore year of high school, I wrote some short stories with my classmates as characters. At first they were indiscriminate, with my entire honors English class as the cast. But they gradually centered on a smaller group of friends in an attempt to define a brat pack of our own. I wanted to bring together disparate individuals from different spheres and create a Breakfast Club-like community. But I learned that community could not be artificially orchestrated, and I was often surprised with friends I would not have expected or chosen.
The fallout for Gen X ministries
Is it any wonder that the twentysomething/Gen X ministries of the '90s emphasized themes like authenticity, friendship and community? A generation wounded by broken homes and various dysfunctions yearned for the kind of connection and community modeled in these movies. We looked for a place to belong, a group to call our own. While this is a perennial human need common to every generation, John Hughes's movies captured the cultural moment perfectly and demonstrated how we could reach beyond ourselves, with self-disclosure and vulnerability.
Hughes portrayed a balance between individuality and community, conformity and non-conformity. Gen Xers, while probably still as individualistic as the boomers that preceded them, longed to bring that individuality to a community that would welcome them as they are.
As 1 Corinthians 12 points out, we are all distinct parts of a body. Christian community should not flatten us out in cookie-cutter fashion; we live out our lives in ways that are unique to how God has made us. So too should the church be a welcoming, safe place for people of all backgrounds, personalities and social demographics, where we connect and become friends with people we would not ordinarily expect.
Hughes has been critiqued for his lack of attention to racial issues. As an Asian American, I hated the portrayal of Long Duk Dong, the gawky Asian character in Sixteen Candles. Hughes's characters mostly represent the predominantly white communities of the northern Chicago suburbs where he grew up (and filmed the movies). When criticized for his lack of African-American characters, Hughes said with some degree of self-awareness that he could not pretend to understand the African-American experience. In many ways he limited himself to "write what you know."
But Hughes does give attention to issues of class differences. While many of his characters are privileged, suburban upper-middle class folks with big houses and a Ferrari 250 GT, several films explore life on the other side of the tracks. In Pretty in Pink, Molly Ringwald's character Andie doesn't want rich kid Blane to see where she lives. In the lesser-appreciated Some Kind of Wonderful, the popular girl is herself torn between her lower-class background and her upper-class friends. All three of the main characters struggle with how their social community and standing is influenced by access to wealth and power.
Ideology of romanticism
Hughes's movies, like most romantic comedies, hold to an underlying ideology of romanticism. The Breakfast Club members inevitably pair up, and the love triangles of Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful are resolved to find their own versions of happily ever after. Hughes's films explore some of the ways that romantic love can rival and disrupt friendship. Viewers of Pretty in Pink debated endlessly whether Andie should have gotten together with Duckie, and in Some Kind of Wonderful Keith is so blinded by his obsession with pretty girl Amanda that his friendship with Watts is threatened. Hughes seems to offer both alternatives—sometimes romantic love trumps friendship, while other times true love is found in that best friend.
I don't know to what extent Gen Xers' views of love and romance were formed by John Hughes's movies. We long for friendship and community, and we hope to get the girl/guy as well. But Christians should be careful not to overemphasize the romantic ideal. Jesus points out that the highest love is not Hollywood romantic love, but sacrificial friendship love, laying down one's life for one's friends.
The most important thing about Hughes's films is not just the witty one-liners or the spot-on dialogue. Ultimately, we come away from them with a sense that we are not alone in the world, that we can share who we truly are with others. We can know and be known, whether we are sportos, motorheads, geeks, bloods, wasteoids or dweebies. Hughes tapped into a generation's longing for connection, even if it's just sitting in a library with a few unanticipated friends and talking about life.